My first apartment in Los Angeles was in one of those courtyard buildings, the kind you see in movies, with the cheap aluminum gates and the swimming pool that no one ever uses. The property had a name, The Hollywood Gardens. It sprawled across the facade in huge letters, done in a retro 1950s typeface that reminded me of bowling alleys and trashy science fiction novels. This was conflicting. While the name Hollywood Gardens evoked tranquility, the sign was tacky. It was like someone stole the hood ornament from a Ford Thunderbird and glued it to the exterior wall. Whoever designed the building could have showed some restraint and made a smaller sign, then placed it in a more tasteful location, say, on a welcome mat, or maybe a business card.
My neighbors were mysterious loners. I’d sit on my front stoop and watch them come and go, dreaming up stories for each of them. I imagined the scruffy guy in 2B was a down-on-his-luck private investigator who had just stumbled onto the case of a lifetime: a murdered starlet with ties to the mayor. There was a classy older woman in 3F who always wore chiffon blouses and safari hats, which led me to believe she was either a wildlife photographer or a spirit medium. In 2E was a single mom and her teenage son, who’d just arrived from somewhere on the east coast, possibly New Jersey. I figured the son had difficulty at his new high school and was likely bullied by a group of blonde-haired kids, until he enlisted the help of the building’s maintenance guy, a kind-hearted Asian man who not only fixed leaky faucets but also taught karate.
When I actually met the other tenants, I was saddened to learn that none of them were as interesting as I’d hoped—except for the albino in 2H, the one with the butterfly farm and all those antique mannequins. Everyone else was a show business wannabe. Actor. Writer. Singer. There were no additional details offered, no qualifiers like “studying to be” or “in training”; just a straight-faced, one-word job description that magically put them in the same category as Meryl Streep and Marlon Brando.
It was hard to ask any follow-up, like how their careers were going or if I’d seen them in anything, because the answer was evident. “Oh yeah, I’m killin’ it right now,” said Dean, the comedian from 1D. “That’s why I’m trading you my stereo speakers for a Mobil gift card”.
I often wondered what my neighbors thought about me, a clean-cut college grad who left for work at 8:00 every morning, wearing a dress shirt and chinos. This alone was cause for suspicion. As I passed the other units I’d see the occasional pair of eyes, peering out at me through a window. “There goes Mr. Salary,” I imagined them saying. It seemed that in Los Angeles working a regular job meant you’d sold out and taken the easy road, whereas sitting on a beanbag all day in a fishing hat and flip-flops meant you were still in hot pursuit of your dreams.
“Lemme guess: either you work at a bank, or a rental car place.” This from Ronnie, the guitarist from 1F. “I mean, where else would you be going every day at the same time?”
“Good observation,” I said, wafting away his exhaled pot smoke. “But you forgot one other possibility.”
Once the other tenants found out I worked for a movie producer, I became the building’s conduit to stardom. Random encounters became impromptu auditions, where they’d showcase their talents or pitch ideas in the hopes that I’d get them a meeting on the Sony lot. They were sly about it, like Bill the screenwriter, who somehow injected phrases like “strong female lead” or “second act turning point” into every conversation, or Meredith the singer, who broke into Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” whenever I saw her in the laundry room. “Oh my, was I singing aloud just then?” she’d say, her hand pressed against her chest.
I downplayed the glamour of my job while at the same time exploiting it. “It’s just like anything else,” I’d remind people. “Long hours, big egos, countless meetings, blah blah blah. Anyway, my car’s here. Off to another boring Director’s Guild party.” I told stories about work, placing myself at the center and then casually sprinkling famous people around the edges. They weren’t lies, per se; they were technical versions of the truth. For instance: I did eat lunch with John Cusack today, just not directly next to him. He and I were both in the commissary at the same time, but at different tables. “He’s a good guy,” I added, a judgment I made after noticing how pleasantly he chewed his salad.
On the outside I played the role of big shot producer’s assistant—movie premieres, Banana Republic wardrobe, CD player in my car—but behind the scenes lay a different story, more of a sitcom premise, actually: I lived with four other people in a two-bedroom apartment. This may be acceptable for a fledgling rock band, or a group of refugees, but it’s a bit too collegial for a young professional, especially one who buys skin cream exclusively at Fred Segal. As soon as my neighbors discovered the unzipped sleeping bags on the floor and the 40-year old man living in my closet, my status as an industry insider was revoked.
“This is…nice,” Dean said, standing in my living room, surveying the apartment. “To be honest, I was expecting, like, gold records on the wall or pictures of you and Tom Cruise in Aspen, but this…” he said, nodding toward the nest of pillows on the floor, “…this also works.”
“Believe me, it’s only temporary,” I said, quietly, careful not to wake the guy sleeping on the couch. “I’m just helping out some friends until they get on their feet.” A charitable notion, but it did little to change the impression that I was a fraud. After all, how could I boast about my friendship with Kevin Bacon’s brother, or my advance VHS copy of The Blair Witch Project, when my apartment looked like a Red Cross shelter?
“Hey man, you don’t have to explain anything to me,” Dean said, tossing a Nerf basketball into the plastic hoop that was duct taped to the wall. “Believe me, I know how it goes.” And just like that, we were on the same level. He would no longer seek my opinion on his stage persona, nor would he run his material past me before open mike nights. He’d stop asking if I knew any junior talent agents at William Morris. Outside of friendly conversation or a cup of cooking oil, I was worthless to him. We were equal. The idea made my stomach sick.
I stopped him on the front steps. “Please, let me explain,” I said, desperately, as though he’d just found me in bed with his girlfriend. He sighed and checked his watch, then nodded for me to proceed. So I did…
At first there were two of us, myself and Eric. A month later we got a call from Frank, a friend of ours from Boston, who asked if he could stay with us for a few weeks until he found a job and his own place. That plan fell apart two days after he arrived, when, while hiking through Beachwood Canyon, he slipped and tumbled down the side of a cliff, breaking his knee. Since he’d be out of work for the foreseeable future, Eric and I loaned him money for a twin-sized bed and let him stay with us indefinitely. Eric said the bed could go in his room, so long as I accepted the role of Frank’s full-time caretaker. “No problem,” I said, thinking the extent of my duties would be fetching sodas from the fridge. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized Frank needed help getting in and out of the shower, as well as support while he wiped himself after bowel movements.
Next to arrive was Graham, a former roommate from film school. Though we shared a bedroom, I hardly knew anything about him, except that he wore matching pajamas and was prone to seizures. I always assumed he hated me and secretly planned to kill me, so I was surprised when he called me one day in August, from a payphone on Sunset Blvd., to ask if he could stay with me for a little while. “Just until I get a screenwriter job,” he said. At first I laughed, but then I realized he was serious and I felt bad for him. He had nowhere else to go, so I said sure, he could sleep on the living room floor.
Our fifth roommate was Howie, a massively built man in his late-thirties who looked like Mike Tyson’s brother. A friend of Frank’s from the Boston restaurant scene, Howie showed up at our door, unannounced, in late August. “Frank here?” he said, standing on the front steps in a tank top and drawstring karate pants, his only luggage a canvas laundry bag. Before I could respond he walked past me into the living room, dropped his bag on the floor, sat down on the couch, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the coffee table and lit one. When I asked what brought him to Los Angeles, he scratched his head and asked if I had any weed.
None of us had the courage to ask Howie for rent, or how long he planed on staying, so we let him sleep on the couch—until, that is, we discovered how late he slept. Four o’clock in the afternoon, while the rest of us sat on the floor watching a football game, Howie would still be asleep on the couch, snoring, his massive feet draped over the armrest. A week later we cleared out the storage closet and told Howie he was welcome to it, free of charge. He agreed.
That was two months ago, and no one had moved out since.
“You see? This is what I’ve been dealt,” I said to Dean, gesturing through my window at Frank and Howie, who were sitting on milk crates, in front of the TV, playing Nintendo.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted for a response. Did I expect him to breathe a sigh of relief? Would he say, “Ohhhhh. Okay. So you are somebody important. I got a little nervous when I saw the air mattress in your kitchen, but it all makes perfect sense now. Great! Now that you’ve cleared that up, can I have some more career advice?”
Instead Dean just shook his head. “That’s rough,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or patronizing. Then it occurred to me: there’s no way to justify five people living in a two-bedroom apartment, just like there’s no decent explanation for a restraining order or a cold sore. I would either have to resolve the situation myself or accept it and live with the consequences.
Dean said he had to get home, that his girlfriend was making her famous chicken cacciatore for dinner. I wanted to ask if I could join but figured that was creepy, so instead I sat on my front steps and watched them, all night, through their living room window. I pictured myself at the dinner table, raising a glass of pinot noir and toasting our futures. We’d talk about our respective trades and share cautionary tales on the pitfalls of fame. Afterward we’d retire to the couch and watch a movie on HBO, during which I’d make personalized comments about the actors, things like “He’s a real gentleman, that Keanu.”
At eleven o’clock their lights went out, but I stayed on my steps, watching. An hour later Meredith the singer entered the courtyard, passing me on her way to her apartment. She wore a strapless silver dress and heels, indicating she had either been on a date or had possibly performed somewhere. I waved and smiled at her. I expected her to start humming the chorus to “My Heart Will Go On”, but instead she waved back quickly and kept walking. It was as if she already knew I had nothing more to offer. It was as if they all knew.
* * *
In December I went home for Christmas, to see friends and family and to repair my damaged ego. I told the same movie industry tales, but now that I was three thousand miles away from the truth, I drastically inflated them. “There’s not much to do on a movie set, pop,” I said at the dinner table. “It’s a lot of standing around. Sometimes I’ll get an idea, you know, something that could make the scene work better, and I’ll pull the director aside and talk to him, but beyond that it’s just me and Clooney and our ping pong tournament.” This was a stretch, as I had only been on movie set twice: once to make a Fedex run, and once to drop off a pack of string cheese.
When friends asked for my craziest celebrity encounter, I told them that Angelina Jolie once mooned me. This did in fact happen but to someone else, a P.A. on location with Angelina in Pennsylvania, where she filmed Girl, Interrupted. Since he told me about it firsthand, I was fine borrowing it and then inserting myself as the central character. The more times I told that story, though, the more it bored me. By the end of the week it changed from me seeing Angelina Jolie’s bare ass to me knocking out Harrison Ford in the alley behind Spago.
I spent my last night in Boston visiting Maura, a friend from high school and one-time flame. She was living in a duplex in Brookline with three other women. “Very nice,” I said as she gave me a tour of the spacious first floor apartment. “And you all have your own bedrooms?”
“Yeah, Danny,” she said, laughing. “This isn’t summer camp.”
She poured us each a glass of wine and we sat in her living room, catching up. Maura was my first real relationship. I was fifteen; she was fourteen. My mother had to drive us on our first date, to the movies to see My Cousin Vinny. Now she was in graduate school, working part time at a V.A. hospital. It was nice to see her, both of us adults, talking about adult things.
“So, tell me about L.A.,” she said.
I wanted to tell her the truth. That I shared a two-bedroom apartment with four guys, one of whom lived in our storage closet. That my car had been towed twice, and both times I had to borrow money from a coworker to get it out of the lot. That I ate Jack-in-the-Box every night for dinner. That my boss called me a fucking moron at least once a day. That the freeways depressed me. That I felt like a servant, a bottom-feeder, a nobody who had nothing.
Before I could spill my guts to her, the front door opened. Keys jingled, cabinet doors opened and closed, and boot heels thudded across the floor. “That’s Kate, my roommate,” Maura said. “I guess she’s not going to the gym tonight.”
Kate entered the room. “Maura, where’s the fucking weed?” She turned to me. “Hi.” She turned back to Maura. “I told you to save some for this exact moment because all I wanted to do was get home from work, get high, and listen to Van Halen. Remember?”
While Maura redirected Kate to the kitchen cupboard, I was overcome by a strong sense of déjà vu. I knew I had heard those words before, and then I realized that they were my own words, spoken to Frank, verbatim, two weeks ago.
Kate joined us in the living room. “So, Danny,” she said, drawing in a mammoth hit from a glass bowl. She held it until her head started to sway, and then let it out with an elaborate groan. “Maura says you work in L.A., in the movies. That’s pretty cool.” She passed me the pipe.
“Well…” I said, taking a hit. “It’s hard work and long hours, and sometimes it’s bullshit, but I love it. I do. I really, really love it.”
“Do you see a lot of famous people?” she said.
I shrugged. “Matt Damon was in my office last week.” This wasn’t entirely true. Matt Damon poked his head in for five seconds to ask if I knew where the men’s room was. Also it wasn’t Matt Damon. It was Henry Winkler.
“Oh my God I love Matt Damon,” Kate said. She was about to continue and then stopped herself. “Wait…wait.” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “Shhhh. Just shut up and listen.”
Filling the silence was the opening guitar riff of “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”. The three of us sat there for the rest of the night, talking, passing the pipe and listening to Van Halen I. Moments like that can’t be written; they’re too perfect for movies.
I didn’t want to leave but eventually I did, and by ten the next morning I was boarding a plane back to Los Angeles. Since I couldn’t afford the luxury of a direct flight, I had to switch planes in Cleveland and then again in Phoenix. Twelve hours of travel and all I thought about was Kate: her Midwestern accent, her yellow-blonde hair, her rosy cheeks. Even though she was from Michigan, she reminded me of home. I pictured her in high school, cruising around her Detroit suburb with a group of friends, drinking in the woods or in some convenient store parking lot, singing along to the choruses of hair metal anthems. It stung, indulging in this fantasy that would never materialize, but I took the pain and kept dreaming anyway.
Eric picked me up from LAX. We took La Brea back to our apartment, passing strip malls and billboards and fast food joints. When we got home, Frank and Howie were on the couch playing a video game. The place reeked of bong water and farts. I walked directly into my bedroom and shut the door.
My first day back at work was uneventful, except for when my boss called me a ‘fucking completely retarded idiot’, an insult I had stopped using myself in the fourth grade. She called me that because I had missed a phone call, her hairstylist, Jean Pierre, who was confirming an appointment. I suppose it was my fault; after all, I did use the rest room when I could have just as easily taken a shit in the trashcan under my desk. When she got tired of reaming me out she went back into her office, and I laid my head down on my desk and fought back tears.
That night at home I got stoned and ate my Jack-in-the-Box. Our cable had been shut off, so all five us sat in the living room watching Cocktail on VHS. Halfway through the movie the phone rang, a pleasant surprise since I was sure that had been disconnected as well. It was Maura. She just wanted to tell me how great it was to see me, and how glad she was that I was doing so well out in L.A. Then she told me that someone wanted to talk to me. Goosebumps broke out over my body.
A moment later, Kate was on the line. “Danny?” she said. “Is this Danny Pellegrini, from California?” She sounded drunk, which was fine by me. I heard roommates giggling in the background. "So, Danny Pellegrini from California…here's the deal. I want to see you again." She burped. "What are we going to do about that?"
...STAY TUNED FOR PART 2, "BAREFOOT IN VEGAS", COMING SOON!
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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